It may seem to many litigators that creating search terms across multiple languages is a simple matter of translation.
However, when trying to create search terms in a foreign language, there can be unexpected pitfalls that can cause headaches in the form of false hits, too narrow or broad searches, or missed documents.
In this article, we’ll focus on how the simple task of translating a name can contain unexpected pitfalls.
What’s in a name?
Imagine that you need to find communications with people from a key company who did business with your client: Widget Corp.
Widget Corp’s Japanese subsidiary has several people who were in contact with your client, and the most important person had the email Watanabe.Kenji@WidgetCorp.com.
You know you’ll need to not only find direct email communications between Mr. Watanabe and your client, but any mention of in person meetings and phone conversations. So you simply set up a search in English for Watanabe w/3 Kenji. This search would find any instances where the word “Watanabe” and the word “Kenji” appear within 3 words of each other and pull it into your search results.
You also know that Mr. Watanabe frequently communicated in Japanese, so you ask somebody like myself at The CJK Group to assist.
“Please translate this search term into Japanese,” says the law firm Associate.
Do you see the problem?
Dizzying Numbers of Variations on Japanese Names
In English, comparatively speaking, there are not many possible variations on how a name might be spelled. Especially if you already have their name in an email address, you might think “how many possible ways to translate this into Japanese could there be?”
Take the given name Kenji:
The possibilities go on and on. On a quick count based on a popular Japanese baby name spelling variations website, the naming dictionary lists 196 different commonly accepted ways to spell “Kenji.”
The possibilities on “Watanabe” are not quite as daunting, but nonetheless voluminous. There are 51 different commonly accepted variations on how to write “Watanabe” such as
Put these combinations together, and you are looking at 51 x 196 = 9,996 different possible variations on how to write “Kenji Watanabe” in Japanese.
Numerous kanji variations on names are not the exception, but the rule in Japanese naming.
Haruna = 296 variations
Yoko = 76 variations
Hiroshi = 243 Variations
Souji = 116 variations
Kenta = 72 variations
In fact, the more common the name, the more variations tend to exist for those names. Watanabe is the 6th most common family name in Japan, for example.
Thousands of Search Terms per Name Should be the Absolute Last Resort
Thus, searching for “every possible variation” on a person’s name in Japanese should often be a last resort tactic. It should not be the default approach on these matters.
This is because it is not uncommon to have dozens of searches involving a single person’s name. Some examples of searches you might be running against a single name might look something like this:
(Kenji w/3 Watanabe) AND “Widget Company”
(Kenji w/3 Watanabe) w/30 Manufacturing
(Kenji w/3 Watanabe) w/30 Conspiracy
Imagine trying to input 10,000 different searches for each of those searches—simply inputting every variation as a single search could take hours, most likely days. I’ve seen firms try to create extremely lengthy search strings that try to seek every variation of the name in Japanese and have the Relativity platform return an error saying the search string was too lengthy to run.
This approach is time consuming, rife for the possibility of accidental input errors in lengthy search strings, and simply frustrating for everyone involved.
When Possible, Get Some Background Information from your Client on Names
The simplest solution for a litigator to this issue is to ask the client for the Japanese spellings (Kanji) that the client has for any Japanese names for key individuals whom you will know will be important in the litigation.
This will not be a burdensome request to your client. The issue of the innumerous possible spellings (kanji combinations) that can spell the same sounding name is a problem of which all Japanese people are extremely aware. Thus, most HR departments and the relevant departments of any major corporation will have such information readily available for their own employees, as well as for any people with whom the company regularly does business. It’s no different than asking someone if their department’s employee is named “Jeffrey or Geoffrey” or “Sara or Sarah.”
Asking this type of information sufficiently before the search terms will need to be created will give you time to get responses back—and can save you from some severe search term related headaches when it comes time to create search terms in Japanese.